Beauty in War
SOME little time ago Mr. Ernest Raymond, the author of a popular war book, Tell England, wrote an article in which he said that the greatest obstacle which faced the peacemakers was that, though ‘war has no validity in reason, in selfishness, or in religion, it has a strange and awful validity of beauty. . . . As men of reason we scoff at it; as men of business we fear it; as men of religion and good will we loathe it; and as artists we love it. . . . Our response to the sudden fact of war is a response of thrilled emotion, an æsthetic delight, a self-yielding to some dark allurement more powerful than all reason and contemptuous of all expediency. . . . At last, at last we are living deep. ... It is not the ape and tiger in us that leap to the call of war, but the poet.’ This same note was sounded very early in the war in Rupert Brooke’s sonnets, though in them there was as much joy at escape from the old life of peace as of joy in the new life of war.
Mr. Galsworthy replied to this article with some indignation, insisting that Mr. Raymond was describing not a love of beauty but a love of thrill, that the average man was not thus ‘sensation-craving,’ had not this temperament of the gambler and the hero. ‘As truly might a man write that the Black Death had “the awful validity of beauty” as write it of the Great War.’
During a long period of trying to secure new members, in a country district, for the League of Nations Union, I hear, again and again, both in the ‘big houses’ and in the cottages, variations, often very differently expressed, of these two points of view. I have come to the conclusion that Mr. Raymond is nearer to the truth of men’s hearts, in this case, than Mr. Galsworthy, and that the lovers of peace will make the serious mistake of underestimating the forces of the enemy if they do not try to meet, counter, and satisfy the emotion of which Mr. Raymond was so deeply conscious. To deny that thousands and thousands of ordinary men who enlisted, at any rate in the early days of the war, ‘to save Belgium,’ to ‘make the world safe for democracy,’ felt what Mr. Raymond describes is to miss the true inner meaning, the sudden and bright significance of that great act of heroism. Mr. Raymond has missed it. And Mr. Galsworthy has missed it even more completely. It seems to me of immense importance that we should realize what are the strongest weapons of the forces that fight against peace, and that they are forged by man’s higher, not by his lower, nature.
When Mr. Raymond attributes a terrible beauty to war he does so from a deep, dangerous, and very prevalent confusion of ideas — he gives to war the beauty which attends on selfsacrifice. But Mr. Galsworthy is wrong in denying that beauty of selfsacrifice to war: it does belong to it — but only incidentally, not of necessity.
Man is in himself a contradiction, a balance of opposites. He is an animal with the self-preserving, self-seeking instincts of an animal who is fitted to live on this earth and in time; but he has also a soul, — which we may call his higher nature, if we choose, — which has other needs than those that can be gratified by self-seeking, which compels him to desire to live by other standards than those of the natural man, and which is always, unless suppressed by custom, fear, or selfishness, aspiring toward the life outside time, the life of eternity.
When a man cares so much for something outside himself and his own interests, something which he believes to be good and true, that he is willing to give up everything that the natural man longs for and knows to be necessary, even the life of the body itself,he finds suddenly that he knows what was meant by the mysterious dominical saying, ‘He that loseth his life . . . shall find it.’ When he has, by his own will, chosen, if need be, to sacrifice his natural life, he realizes that he has found his supernatural life; and, perhaps again, perhaps for the first time, he knows that this is his real life, that only now is he truly and absolutely happy, only now, as Mr. Raymond says, is he ‘living deep.'
The soldier, as Ruskin insisted, is not a man who goes out to war to kill, but a man who goes out to war prepared to die, and it is this truth that gives to war its most lasting authority. I do not think that Mr. Galsworthy is right even about the Black Death. To those who feared it and fled from it, it was indeed pure horror and ugliness, but to those who joined the Brothers of the Misericordia, who were prepared to lose their lives in order to tend the sick and bury the dead, I am sure there was a terrible, a supernatural beauty even in the plague.
We can never successfully fight war if we deny this truth. To lay stress on war’s horrors, its dangers, its beastliness, its uselessness, its terrible sufferings, is good and necessary, but it is not enough, particularly with young people, who will be the soldiers of the future. It is very difficult to make young people realize horrors that they have not experienced, but those of them who are sensitive enough to appreciate the horrors may also be brave enough to be inspired by them. The courage of youth is partly ignorance, but also partly that magnificent quality in human nature, or at least in that, part of humanity whose hearts are brave, which grows stronger as the odds grow heavier. Readers of Mr. Chesterton’s noble Ballad of the White Horse do not doubt the psychological truth of the incident in which Alfred the Saxon, Mark the Roman, and Colin the Gael are inspired to make their last desperate stand against the Danish invaders by the message, ‘That the sky grows darker yet, And the sea rises higher.’
We can but acknowledge that this strange losing of the natural life and finding of the supernatural can be found in war, but we can also point out that it is found far better in peace, that it is found less frequently in war, for there men are constantly being pulled back to their lowest natures by the terrible need of killing, or the horror and ugliness, the monotony, suffering, and exhaustion of war. It is an achievement that artists, scientists, mystics, missionaries of all kinds, all who give up their lives to the service of God, of truth, or of their fellow men, may find in their daily work. Yet for the great majority of men, who must spend their lives working for their livelihood and that of their families, who have not a great or trained religious sense, it is not easy to take that perilous passage from the natural life to the life above nature. Nothing forces them to see its truth and its validity so effectively as the sudden terrible necessity of war. Then they must choose, and they find that they care for justice, for mercy, for their country, their fellow men, their homes, enough to be willing to die for them.
Still, as Mr. Galsworthy pointed out, ‘men do not go to war to gratify or fulfil themselves’; they are not usually so egotistic as that. But we cannot blame them if, when their governments declare war, they grasp the chance to express their higher nature, their longing to devote self to something greater than self, with a terrible joy. I do not think, however, that the majority of men will ever try to make war, to urge their governments toward anything so conclusively proved to be disastrous to conqueror and conquered, any more than I believe they will retrogress toward the blood feuds that continued, until very recent days, in the Appalachian Mountains, where the power of the courts did not run. If we can perfect and put into action the machinery for keeping the peace and avoiding war between nations, if the governments will but in time learn, or be forced, to turn, as private individuals do, to legal means of settling a quarrel instead of organized murder, I do not think we need fear that the ordinary man will insist on war for the development of his higher nature, any more than he now insists on the blood feud or even the duel. But we who long for peace and work for peace must not forget that if we deny that man’s higher nature can be expressed in war we may make the ordinary man feel that pacificists are an ignoble and blinded lot.
How then can we fight this power of war, this ‘awful validity of beauty’ which it has? Only, I fear, slowly and by degrees, and, as in every other reform, by increasing men’s knowledge, by impressing on men’s minds, till it becomes a part of their instinctive mental processes, that war is too wicked, too cruel, too wasteful to be made the vehicle of that validity and that beauty. War is too poor a cause to be worth dying in — one must make this ultimate sacrifice for and find that terrible beauty in peace and not in war. We must desire peace as a positive thing, not as a mere negative absence of war, but rather as a glorious war, the only war possible for civilized people, a war against slums, poverty, ignorance, cruelty, and injustice, a war in which man may, without, any shame or hesitation, sacrifice his natural, selfish, greedy, ease-loving life and find the beauty, the power, and the truth of that supernatural life of love.